Do You Grab Hold of the Torah on Shavuot?

Artistic Styalization of Two Hands Giving and Receiving

Hands Giving and Receiving

At Shavuot, how we receive the gift of Torah is one of the great questions posed. I found a path towards understanding in a passage of the Talmud.

One is really two and two is really four. This is not a set of alternative facts but an insight from the Talmud (BT Shabbat 2a) about the nature of things. Shavuot is the time of the giving of Torah. But in any transaction there are two components, giving and receiving; one is really two. But it doesn’t stop there.

Both giving and receiving are either active or passive. In giving, we can thrust it towards another actively, or we can be passive and open our hands for the other to take it. Similarly, in receiving, we can actively take the gift with eagerness and enthusiasm, or we can open our hands to passively receive the gift that is to be bestowed upon us. Two is really four. [Read more…]

Israeli Cheesecake for Shavuot

Photo by Christian Guthier https://www.flickr.com/photos/wheatfields/

Photo: Christian Guthier

Shavuot is the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is also an agricultural holiday marking the beginning of the wheat harvest in Israel. It is traditional to eat dairy products during Shavuot. Israelis celebrate Shavuot with an iconic cheesecake called Ugat Gvina (cheese cake). They can thank the German Templers for introducing the most important ingredient in this cake to Israel.

In 1868, the first group of these German Protestants settled at the foot of Mount Carmel. They established a colony there, followed by Sarona, near Jaffa, and the Valley of Refaim in Jerusalem. They were called “Templers” since they hoped to hasten the coming of the Messiah by facilitating the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Templers (no relation to the medieval Knights Templars) created the Jaffa orange brand and founded the first dairy farm with cows in Ottoman Palestine. Sheep and goats had exclusively provided milk up to this point. The Germans made one of their favorite dairy products at this dairy: quark cheese.

Quark cheese is a soft fresh cheese, traditionally made without rennet. It is popular throughout Northern Europe. Milk that has soured is slowly warmed until it curdles. The mix is strained through a cheesecloth, and then served. Quark cheese is lower fat than cream cheese. It has a lighter, drier, and grainier texture. The Vermont Creamery makes a kosher Quark cheese. This is the essential ingredient that gives Israeli cheesecake its light texture and distinctive flavor.

What I think of as “Israeli cheesecake” is really a German recipe introduced by the Templers.

Photo by kersy83 https://www.flickr.com/photos/kersy83/

Photo: kersy83

Israeli Cheesecake
Adapted from allrecipes

  • 18 oz. Quark cheese
  • 2 1/8 cups milk
  • 6 tbsp. butter
  • 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/3 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 tbsp. Vanilla sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Coat a 9 inch cake pan with oil.
  3. In a large bowl, combine butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 egg, flour, and baking powder.
  4. Press into the bottom and sides of the cake pan.
  5. In a clean bowl, mix the quark cheese, vegetable oil, 3/4 cup sugar, vanilla sugar, pudding mix, egg yolks, 1 egg, milk, and lemon juice.
  6. Pour the mixture over the crust.
  7. Bake for 60 minutes.

Baked Ricotta for Shavuot


Photo by jamesonf.

— by Ronit Treatman

Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, is a cheese lover’s dream.

Why cheese? The laws of kashrut did not exist before the Torah, so all of the cooking utensils were impure. Jews had to learn how to perform a kosher ritual slaughter before they could consume kosher meat. Therefore, it was easier to make dairy meals.  

The Ancient Greeks are credited with inventing the first cheesecake. It was as basic as possible: just baked white cheese.

A perfect cheese for baking is ricotta: an Italian cheese made from the liquid that remains after milk has been curdled, called whey. Ricotta means “recooked” in Italian.

Recipe after the jump.
The whey for ricotta traditionally comes from the milk of a sheep, goat, cow or Italian water buffalo. An easy and versatile way to entertain your guests during Shavuot is to start with ricotta al forno, “baked ricotta,” as a neutral canvas.

Baked Ricotta

This is the most elementary cheesecake. You may serve it as a sweet or savory dish by spooning the appropriate topping over it. The savory toppings should be presented with warm, fresh, crusty bread on the side.  

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Pour the ricotta into an ovenproof casserole dish coated with vegetable oil. Spread the cheese evenly in the dish.
  3. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

Savory Topping Ideas:

  • Roasted red and green peppers, minced cilantro, and minced garlic tossed with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and black pepper.
  • Caramelized onions and sage.
  • Zest from one lemon, fresh thyme, salt, black pepper.
  • Roasted tomatoes tossed with fresh basil leaves, minced garlic, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper.
  • Roasted asparagus tossed with extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic, salt, and black pepper.
  • Artichoke hearts sautéed in olive oil, minced garlic, salt, and black pepper.
  • Green olives, tomatoes, and minced garlic sautéed in olive oil with white wine, salt, and black pepper.

Sweet Topping Ideas:

  • Wildflower honey.
  • Fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries.
  • One pound of peaches poached in 1 cup of water, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, and 1/4 cup of bourbon.
  • Melted semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  • Two sliced bananas sautéed in one teaspoon of butter, 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar, a sprinkling of ground cinnamon, and 1/4 cup of rum.
  • Two tablespoons of orange blossom water, 1 teaspoon of sugar, a few strands of saffron, 1 cardamom pod, and a handful of pistachio nuts heated together.  
  • Fresh cherries (1 cup) simmered in 2 tablespoons water, 1/3 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, a few drops of almond extract, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

Managing Life’s Transitions Is Like Counting the Omer

— by Aviva Perlo

Imagine that you are walking through the desert for 40 years. Day after day, week after week. You and 20,000 of your closest friends and tribe’s members move through the wilderness, in hopes for a better life.

You get hot, and then cold, and then hungry, and then tired. Shelter comes and goes. Everything appears to be wide open. The uncertainty of the wilderness seems disorienting, yet exhilarating. To restore some order and structure to the wide-open landscape, you — well, all 20,000 of you — try to build a holy space in the desert using specific measurements and materials, and lots of detail. “Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so, as though we were making the first step towards disaster,” explains English Professor Dr. William Bridges in his book “Transitions: Making sense of life’s Changes.”

More after the jump.
Vulnerable to environmental and situational conditions: desert storms, the winds, the sun, we start to doubt if we will ever get there, and we don’t even know where “there” is. After months of pitching a tent together, shlepping, hauling materials, and not reaching the goal, the people around you start to get on your nerves. Complaining and blaming seem tempting, because it’s easier than facing what is actually happening. Beneath the surface, massive changes are tugging at our hearts, as our identity, security and reality are being forced to change. Tension emerges as we wonder who we are, and where we are going.

This is the story of the Jewish people in the wilderness, as they prepared for revelation. This is also the narrative of what sometimes happens to individuals and families who undergo traumatic experiences of illness, injury and loss. Shift happens, and it’s not easy.

On the Jewish calendar, writes Jewish educator Dr. Erica Brown:

The transition time between leaving oppression [Passover] and arriving at the Promised Land [Shavuot] takes us to a desert that tests us and our leadership. That transition taught us a great deal about what it took to prepare and confront uncertainty, and how important vision is.

We count the Omer, or the wheat harvest, for 49 days. The Omer marks a major transition period for the Jewish people and for the earth. We are becoming a new people on a new ground, and letting go of our former identity and memories as slaves. The earth provides us with her bountiful harvest, which allows us to survive. Physically and psychically, we are tested.

Life also tests us. When tragedies, illnesses and accidents occur, our worldview morphs immediately. Its stability is shaken as reality turns upside down. We try to stop the suffering, but we can’t. The question emerges: what can we hold onto? What will help nurture and sustainin us? Dr. Brown explains that it is hard to “rebuild trust after authority breaks down,” yet it is possible.

The Omer offers three powerful lessons about life’s transitions:

  1. Go gradually — step by step, day by day. When traveling to new lands or trying out new lifestyles, go slowly. Make life manageable by breaking it down into smaller parts, especially amidst murky waters.
  2. Small steps count, and can be a source of blessing. Although grandiosity has its allure, short blessings enable us to get to the next day.
  3. Each step prepares us for what comes next. We cannot just jump from one big milestone to another. There is an invisible journey that we undergo in order to restore our energy and prepare for what may follow. Quiet time and a restful space are required. We cannot dictate the pace. We can cultivate support systems, count our blessings each day, and develop relationships with compassionate mentors and friends.

Transformative experiences involve a combination of pain, growth and wisdom. May we learn to mitigate the pain and be able to receive more of the fruits.

A Dairy Dream for Shavuot

— by Dakota Marine

On a recent trip to the supermarket, I bought some beautiful ripe, red strawberries. I wanted to make something cold, sweet, creamy, fresh and fruity for Shavuot. I came up with a great combination for a light dessert, or snack.

I washed, hulled and halved some juicy strawberries. Then I opened a container of plain greek-style yogurt, and drizzled in some honey for sweetness.  

Recipe continues after the jump.

Cartoon Courtsey of Yaakov “Dry Bones” Kirschen.
Next, I took a knife and spread the yogurt on top of the strawberries like icing until it covered their entire top. Then, for a crunch, I sprinkled miniature chopped walnuts on top of the layer of yogurt. I placed the sliced yogurt-covered strawberries into a container with a lid, and put them in the freezer for about four hours.

Later in the day, after returning home from a long walk, I was hot and wanted something to cool me off. I pulled out the container to find the strawberries frozen solid. I plopped a frozen strawberry half into my mouth. The yogurt melted into a creamy liquid, and along with the crunch of the nuts the taste was soothing. This snack was a dairy dream, filled with delicious flavors.

Dakota Marine is the creator of Eat My Tailgate, where she takes us into her sorority’s kitchen.

Parmesan and Potato Muffins for Shavuot

— by Margo Sugarman

Ahead of Shavuot, I tried out a recipe for potato muffins that my husband found in a local newspaper. Every now and again he shoves a recipe cutting at me to try out (he has a good eye for those). So with nothing on the menu for dinner last night, I decided to give these a go. As with all new recipes I try out, I am very critical and look to see how to improve on them. But as my family was devouring them rapidly, I realized that this recipe works very well as is, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find too much to change (I have upped the original cheese quantity, though).

Full recipe after the jump.
I love the combination of fresh herbs that give these muffins a really aromatic flavor. You can add the herbs you like, and you can increase the quantities as well. I tried to maintain a balance, so the kids wouldn’t turn up their noses.

One day after baking the muffins, I had them cold, and as delicious as they are warm, I think they’re even better cold. You can serve them as a substitute for rolls in a dairy meal.

Potato and parmesan muffins (Makes 18-20 muffins).

  • 2 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes (about 1cm).
  • 1 large onion, finely diced.
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed.
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil.
  • About 1 tablespoon each of fresh chopped parsley and rosemary (you can increase these quantities to taste).
  • 3 large eggs ,beaten.
  • 200g/7 oz sour cream (about one container).
  • 100g/3 1/2 oz softened butter.
  • 150g (about 1 1/2 cups) grated Parmesan cheese.
  • 1 3/4 cups self raising flour.
  • 1 teaspoon salt.
  1. In a pot of salted water, boil the cubed potatoes just until they are soft. Drain the water and allow them to cool down.
  2. Saute the onions in the olive oil just until they are golden brown. Add the garlic, and saute for about another minute. Remove from the heat.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
  4. In a medium size pan, combine the potatoes, onions, garlic and the rest of the ingredients.
  5. Fill your muffin cups to their 3/4. They will not even out in the oven, so you can smooth them out if you are concerned about appearances.
  6. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the muffins start getting golden brown on top.
  7. Optional: Grate extra cheese, and sprinkle it over the muffins as soon as they come out of the oven.

Margo Sugarman is the creator of The Kosher Blogger, a website of keeping kosher and loving good food.

Festive Shavuot Sutlage (Rice Pudding)

— by Ronit Treatman

Shavuot is like sealing the deal on a marriage contract. It is the celebration of G-d’s giving of the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai. This is the moment when the Jews became a nation, when they accepted G-d’s commandments and pledged to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:6). Like any other wedding, the most important question is, “What did they eat?”

Rice-milk pudding recipe after the jump.
In Exodus 33:3, G-d tells Moses to go to the land which had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “Unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” It is said that when G-d gave the Torah, there was no time to perform kosher shechita (slaughter), and immersion of meat in salt water. The Ancient Israelites celebrated with a dairy meal. It is still traditional to serve dairy dishes on the first night of Shavuot.  

One of the most popular desserts among Jews of the Middle East is the Sutlage (in Turkey and the Balkans), or Muhallabeya (in North Africa). It is a milk pudding prepared with ground rice. The basic rice pudding is a blank canvas to which each celebrant adds his or her own special garnish.

Sutlage or Muhallabeya

  • 5 1/2 cups of cold milk
  • 1/4 cup of brown or white rice flour
  • 1/2 cup honey
  1. Place all the ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil, while mixing. Cover the pot, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  
  2. The fun for your family and guests is personalizing the garnishes. They can add any combination of the following:
    • Ground cinnamon
    • Chopped almonds
    • Chopped pistachios
    • Chopped walnuts
    • Chopped hazelnuts
    • Coconut flakes
    • Sultana raisins
    • Chopped dates
    • Chopped figs
    • Ground saffron
    • Lemon zest
    • Orange blossom water (use only a drop)
    • Rose water (use only a drop)
    • Vanilla
    • Ground cardamom
    • Pomegranate seeds

It is traditional to serve this rice-milk pudding chilled. This recipe is naturally gluten-free.

Counting the Omer: A Modern Revival of an Ancient Jewish Practice

Omer calendars for Israel and Diaspora courtesy of Judaica artist Jonathan Kremer.

— by Carol Towarnicky

As Passover approaches, an increasing number of modern Jews are preparing not only for their annual seders but also for “Counting the Omer,” an ancient practice of blessing each of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, the Counting of the Omer marked the time between the barley and wheat harvests. Every night during that period, farmers would wave an Omer to plead for an abundant crop. Over time, the agricultural ritual was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became a way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai. For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way to prepare the soul for revelation. The mystics divided the time into seven weeks, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other, making each day is unique.  

After the jump: Rabbi Yael Levy’s book on the subject
Rabbi Yael Levy, founder of A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness Center based in Philadelphia and author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Volume 1), has re-imagined the counting as a Mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities that were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

“The counting helps us to pay attention to the movement of our lives,” says Rabbi Levy. “Counting the Omer helps us notice the subtle shifts in our lives, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears.”

Journey Through the Wilderness is available in paperback through Amazon, and as an e-book via Smashwords and other e-booksellers. The publication includes daily blessings in both Hebrew and English and teachings and intentions for each day.

A Way In is also offering a range of online and social media support for individuals who wish to count the Omer, including free daily emails, blog entries and Facebook posts and insightful Twitter messages and reminders.

Rabbi Levy has been exploring the Mindfulness potential of Counting the Omer for more than a decade, in particular during time she spends each year backpacking alone in the red rock desert of southern Utah. She also leads an annual five-day retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that takes place at the end of the Omer 49-day period.  

Rabbi Levy points out that the Hebrew word for “desert wilderness” — midbar — is written the same as the word for “speaks” — medaber. “The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown, to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.”  

A relatively new development in Judaism, Jewish Mindfulness combines meditation, movement and spiritual practice that draws on Jewish text and tradition. As part of A Way In, Rabbi Levy leads twice-monthly contemplative Shabbat services, weekly meditation “sits,” retreats, classes and individual and group spiritual direction, plus an online community.  

A Way In Jewish Mindfulness program grew out of Rabbi Levy's work at Mishkan Shalom congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia where Rabbi Levy has been associated for 19 years. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Levy has co-led retreats in Alaska for Jewish professionals through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is also a spiritual director to rabbinical students in both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and in private practice.